Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

LisaAnnOKane

Tampa, FL

Female, 32

During my zookeeping and environmental education career, I have interacted and worked with a variety of animals, including brown bears, wolverines, red foxes, moose, camels, mountain goats, dolphins, sea lions, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, raptors and ravens. I am also a young adult author, and my debut novel ESSENCE was released in June 2014 by Strange Chemistry Books. Ask me anything!

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Last Answer on September 18, 2015

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I know pandas are ordinarily solitary creatures, but is there a specific term for a "group" of pandas?

Asked by Stephanie about 5 years ago

Hi Stephanie! As far as I know, there is no "official" term for a group of pandas, since they are seen together so infrequently. Unofficially, I believe a group is called a "sleuth" or a "sloth," since that's the technical term for a group of bears. (Random, right? Here's a great link from the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center that lists other bizarre animal groups: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/about/faqs/animals/names.htm Some of my favorites: A group of porcupines is a "prickle," a group of finches is a "charm," and a group of sharks is a "shiver." Who knew?)

Haha, really interesting about the walrus training. Can ANY walrus be trained like that, or is that one especially intelligent? How about other animals; can pretty much any species be trained to perform a routine?

Asked by coryschneider about 5 years ago

Glad you enjoyed it! Theoretically, any walrus could be trained like that. However--just like some people enjoy the spotlight while others shy away from it--it often depends on the individual animal. First and foremost, keepers train their animals for practical "husbandry" or medical behaviors--like shifting in and out of pens so we can clean, presenting their paws and teeth so we can check for injuries, presenting their shoulders for injections, etc. Once our animals have those behaviors mastered, we begin to shift our focus. If an animal seems to enjoy our training sessions, we often continue with other behaviors to keep the animal's environment dynamic and enriching. If the animal doesn't, we often leave them mostly to their own devices. If an animal REALLY seems to respond to our training sessions, we sometimes make the decision to train that animal for a show or presentation. It certainly takes a special animal to thrive in a public venue like a stadium--just like it takes a special keeper to thrive in that environment as well. As far as your species question, it depends. Animals with higher relative intelligence often respond more quickly than other animals, but that's not always the case. Generally speaking, it is also easier to train aggressive animals than it is to train shy animals, because aggressive animals are already hard-wired to approach us. It is fairly easy for us to redirect their energy once they do, but it is difficult to overcome the barrier of an animal that is hard-wired to run away from us. It takes a lot of initial training just to get them to feel comfortable being near us.

Did you hear about the guy who jumped into the tiger pit at the Bronx Zoo? Not that I'd ever do that, but is the best thing to do in that situation just to play dead?

Asked by Ted almost 5 years ago

What a crazy story, right? I am continuously amazed by the people who make these decisions. I feel like you would have to be delusional or very, very troubled to actually assess this situation and make the decision to "become one with the tigers." (I can't, of course, speak for this particular man or his particular motives. It's impossible to accurately judge someone without walking in their shoes, so I will try my best not to make sweeping generalizations. I am just extremely bothered by the fact that this man's self-destructive behavior put both him and the tiger at risk.) In all honesty, there isn't much hope for you if you jump into a tiger enclosure. These are powerful, instinctual, apex predators, and every fiber of their being is tuned into capitalizing on their prey's mistakes. They are also lightning fast, and they make kills very quickly and efficiently. However, just for the sake of argument, I believe the best approach when dealing with big cats is to NEVER curl into the fetal position or play dead. This sometimes works with startled bears, but it simply signals an easy meal to big cats. If you encounter a big cat in the wild, the best idea is just to stay calm and hope the animal doesn't see or become interested in you. If it does, speak loudly, raise your arms and try to scare it away. (Big cats are notoriously shy, so this may actually work.) If the animal refuses to leave (which is way more likely in a zoo setting), you should never turn your back or try to run, because this will incite the tiger's natural chase instinct. Tigers also tend to go for the head and throat, so protect your neck and strike at the animal's face, using anything you can grab as a weapon. In all likelihood, of course, you're a dead man if you don't get some assistance from the tiger's zookeepers. This is how the man at the Bronx Zoo survived. The tiger's keepers managed to keep their cool and distract the tiger before anything too tragic happened. The man looks like he will recover, and the tiger is fine, too. This is the best news of all, because nothing upsets me more than when animals get punished for simply acting on their natural instincts. Kudos to the amazing staff at the Bronx Zoo for averting this tragedy with levelheadedness, skill and precision!

What animal are kids usually most excited to see?

Asked by catherine about 5 years ago

Elephants! And big predators like polar bears or tigers or sharks. Also, who can resist a dolphin or a sea lion? I suppose a better answer would be that it really depends on the child. Some kids freak out over petting zoo animals, while some love aviaries where little birds land on their heads. Stereotypically speaking, though, my opinion would be that the biggest animals tend to be the biggest draws. Maybe kids just like to be humbled, or maybe it's hard for them to comprehend how big an animal actually is until they see it? Hard to tell, I guess, but the elephant line always seems to be the longest... ;)

Do zoos WANT the animals to mate with each other, or only when there's concern about dwindling populations of a species?

Asked by julia about 5 years ago

Hi Julia! Great question... This DEFINITELY depends on the species of the animal. For obvious reasons, zoos place more emphasis on rare and endangered species, but offspring are sometimes welcome for other species as well. Child-rearing is great behavioral enrichment for many social animals, and it strengthens group bonds as well. The question zoos always have to ask is, "Would a newborn take away resources that could be used for an orphaned or injured animal instead?" I worked at a zoo in Alaska that rescued many animals--including black bears, brown bears, moose and red foxes. We NEVER bred these animals internally, because every newborn would have taken up space that could have been used by a wild animal-in-need instead. (We did, however, have breeding plans for some of our other animals, including our Bactrian camels. Since these animals are already domestic, there's no fear of one turning up orphaned or injured nearby.) Hope this is helpful!

This is an amazing Q&A - you're really good at explaining stuff :) Did you hear about the Seaworld whale trainer dying in 2010? Do you think they should stop the whale shows when there's basically no way to prevent a killer whale from going crazy?

Asked by andrea s. about 5 years ago

Thanks for reading, Andrea! I did hear about this trainer’s death, and I think this situation is so heartbreaking and complicated. I will give you my opinion on this tragedy, but please understand that this is just my personal opinion--not the official stance of any organization or group of organizations. What happened to Dawn Brancheau was absolutely tragic. Sea World has made the decision to suspend the in-water portion of their orca shows, and I respect that decision very much. They have made the right move if this new policy saves even one other trainer from suffering a similar fate. I do want to stress, however, that I think it is rash for the public to pass judgment on the entire Sea World orca population—or Sea World in general—based on the actions of this one particular male orca. (And don’t be fooled by their identical appearances! Orcas demonstrate behavioral preferences and choices that vary as widely and drastically as human personalities.) Even before this tragedy occurred, I believe Sea World had some of the most impressive safety protocols of any organization in the world. Their enrichment and training program is top of the line, and many of the country’s best trainers, veterinarians and specialists work for them. (A friend of mine actually started at Sea World in 2006. Her dream was to become an orca trainer, but she was assigned to the dolphin department first. She was told it would be YEARS before she was given so much as an orca fish bucket, so you know Sea World takes its orca department seriously.) My personal opinion is that what happened to Dawn Brancheau was a tragic aligning of the stars. Everything from her choice in hairstyles to the time of year to this particular whale’s mood and temperament stacked up and collided to create one moment where one whale made one decision that will forever alter the way marine mammal facilities operate. It is impossible to know if this situation would ever repeat itself. Sea World has operated for many, many years with many, many whales that have never made the decision this whale did. But when in doubt, you may as well err on the side of caution. That’s what I believe Sea World has done, so I very much respect their judgment.

Are a lot of people in your line of work vegetarian/vegan, given that they work so closely with animals day in and day out?

Asked by m0ng00se about 5 years ago

Awesome question! There are definitely some, but I'm actually surprised there aren't more. Instead, it seems like many of the zookeepers I've worked with have grown this bizarre tolerance to all the gross raw meat and nastiness they have to handle on a daily basis. Many can even take a fecal sample and then roll right into eating a hamburger. (After hand-washing, of course!) The one exception to this is marine mammal trainers. They handle so much raw fish that most of the ones I know gag at even the thought of sushi!